Aug 08 25
Well, I’m safely back from a great trip to the Bugaboos so thought I’d better get ’round to reporting it before the weather improves and we’re all out climbing again?! Hmmm…
So, after the usual cattle class flight issues (surrounded by our country’s finest complete with two bottles of rum and a bottle of JD – you can imagine the rest…) we (Myself, Ashley, Mark and Neil) got sorted in Canmore with food and fuel and headed on out the next morning.
Driving through Banff and via Highway 93 to Radium, the dark clouds spotted hanging over the area as we landed clearly hadn’t felt the need to move on. With the drizzle and surrounding forests it felt like any optimistic drive north for a Scottish winter weekend. Fortunately the ridiculously oversized RV’s reminded us where we were.
As we left the Rockies behind us and headed up the 50km dirt road to the trail head, it did seem like the cloud was lifting. Maybe we would get lucky after all? Parking the low slung hire car safely after several very loud bangs and unpleasant scraping sounds we shouldered the kit, groaned a bit, and started walking… then we started sweating… a lot…
The pull up to the Conrad Kain hut where we were staying was pretty steep going, but our first views of the Pigeon Fork/Bugaboo Glacier and Snowpatch Spire more than made up for it. The guide talks about 2-3 hours – we managed 1:45 and were pleased with our first sub-guidebook time!
Next day, taking advantage of our jet-lag for an early start, we decided on McTech arête, a 6 pitch D- 5.10- (E1 ish), with easy approach and fully equipped ab. stations. Wow – what a place to go cragging! It was pretty cold still (shady) and the first pitch at 5.9 (HVS) complete with fist jamming overhang was a bit of a rude awakening. It all felt a bit too much like hard work, until we remembered we could use the altitude excuse, so it was okay to be panting! The second (crux) pitch went without incident simply because the cracks got smaller and more like what we were used to, but then it was back on the lead again for pitch four – a superb off-vertical corner crack from 2 to 5 inches wide that had monster jams and loads of gear potential, provided you didn’t place all your big cams to soon! Just brilliant. We finished the final pitches and ab’ed off. At some point it started to snow…
The forecast was still looking good and was set to improve so we thought we’d get one more route in before heading back down to bring up more food (strangely, we couldn’t manage all our kit plus two weeks’ worth of food first go – jessies!). Ash and I got an early start again and plodded up the Bugaboo/Snowpatch Col to head ‘round for Surf’s Up, a 9 pitch D 5.9. After a bit of route finding and ‘interesting’ scrambly approach, I led off up the first flakey pitch to belay on a more flakey spike. Ash quickly followed and raced on up the second into a groove system and out of sight…
Now, you know that feeling you get belaying when you can’t see the leader and then it all goes quite and the ropes stop moving upwards?! Admiring the views of Pigeon Spire and the Howser group, I was quietly contemplating the increasingly dark looking clouds materialising out of nowhere and mildly aware of some shouts about wet rock and snow. Nevermind I thought, this route isn’t supposed to have any snow on it so there can’t be much to worry about…
After the initial ‘shots across the bow’ a number of larger lumps of snow and a few icy chunks tumbling my way soon got my attention. Ash was clearly having a hard time (not surprising really – we were in rock boots!) and was concerned about being off route. I decided to help the situation by ensuring my carefully lap-coiled pair of ropes were available as needed so released another couple of coils just in case. Predictably, these then decided to lodge themselves in the only available crack, about 6 feet below me and out of reach. Hmmm, what to do.
“Ash, are you somewhere relatively comfortable?” I asked hopefully. “No, not really, why?” “Oh, nothing…”. I’d best not describe how I sorted it out in case someone reads this and thinks it’s a good idea!
Ash eventually stopped where he was on a dubious belay as he’d all but run out of gear. I’m not sure how long this pitch took, but I was definitely eager to get moving. The route was on the ‘back’ side of Snowpatch Spire so the sun didn’t get ‘round to the bottom half of the route until late afternoon and I was freezing. I followed the pitch into the groove system and happily pulled on the gear through the wet section, picking my way through the snowy/icy crud using the holds Ash had cleared out. We were running late and the clouds were still hovering about in the distance. A quick swop of gear and onwards and upwards, pushing through the crux of the route without giving it as much thought as it probably deserved, conscious of the article Ash had kindly shown me before we flew out about how the Bugs are renowned for their storm systems and of the story of two chaps getting struck by lightning – apparently it isn’t much fun. Is it Grim?!
Pitch 4 delivered us onto the ‘Surf’s Up Ledge’ and another world. A large flat ledge system on the very edge of the spire’s south west ridge, overlooking the Pigeon Fork/Bugaboo Glacier – and in sunshine! Somehow the dark clouds seemed to thin out, lighten up and didn’t seem so menacing…
The next four pitches were superb. We opted for the easier line on pitch 5 taking the narrower of two clean cracks out right to try and gain back some time and then pitched the top section to the summit ‘just in case’. Given a couple of fairly exposed steps this proved sensible. We located the ab. anchors and headed on down… I think we were just outside guidebook time on this one at over 12 hours. Ash was a bit reflective about it, but given the state of pitch 2 and various other factors that nibbled away at the clock I reckon we did okay.
The forecast was now ‘beau temp’ for the next few days, so we decided a rest day was in order and trouped on down to pick up the rest of the food. With lighter packs and a couple of days worth of extra fitness we all assumed the slog back up the hill to the hut wouldn’t be a problem. Oh dear, how wrong we were! The ‘extra fitness’ actually manifested itself as ‘tiredness’. About halfway up and I just crashed, with nothing in the tank. It felt more like the end of an adventure race than a 2 hour hike. Fortunately, an afternoon of sunbathing outside the hut and copious amounts of tea seemed to do the trick.
After our experiences on McTech Arete and Surf’s Up it was clear that the pre-trip objective of the Beckey-Chouinard route on the South Howser Tower, at up to 22 pitches of TD+ 5.10 was a little optimistic. Besides, apparently it had yet to be climbed that season as the top cracks were still iced up. Looking for a suitable alternative proved tricky, but Snowpatch Route up the spire of the same name looked the best contender.
At 19 pitches of D- 5.8 with some tricky route finding on the harder top pitches it seemed challenging but manageable. Fortunately, a couple of Canadian chaps in the hut had just done it and produced the most amazing topo I’ve ever seen. It was spot on the whole way up and made our lives so much easier mentally knowing we were always on track.
After a truly unpleasant approach up steep talus and the first few easy pitches, a superb hand traverse across an exposed slab led to the bottom of the snowpatch and a quick drink. The sun was blazing and it was only going to get hotter. Moving together and belaying as required up the slabs to the left of the snowpatch we quickly got up to the meat of the route. Some great pitches in awesome positions followed, including some balancy moves up a dyke feature leading to a great hand traverse below a roof. A few more corner systems and there we were again, clipping into the ab. of a few days before. A fantastic route – go and do it!
The ab. was a little more fluid this time around now we’d got our system sorted, but I had a gentle reminder to concentrate halfway down as I was feeling the heat and dehydration kicked in.
“Ab. down, locate the anchor, get comfy, escape the system, “Rope free Ash!”, pulling pink so thread that through, clear out purple ready to go. Cool, sorted. Might just clip myself in too!!”
Oops. All’s well that ends well though eh?!
We wandered back to the col, ab’ed past the rapidly widening crevasse system and back to the hut. Ten hours hut to hut. Nice.
So that’s about it really. Next day we had an easier time of it on Pigeon Spire mostly soloing the PD 5.4 west ridge. Brilliant scrambling/climbing all the way along the crest with buckets full of exposure and great views, just a shame everyone else had the same idea. Good fun though and certainly less stressful, though the ‘au cheval’ section in reverse was quite exciting! Following on from that, a shorter walk in and another easyish route on the Crescent Towers, Ears Between AD 5.7 with the 5.8 direct start had some more great climbing, finishing between the two donkey ear pinnacles and requiring a ridiculously exposed free ab. off the east pinnacle followed by some less enjoyable stumbling down a very loose ridge. All character building stuff of course.
The forecast for the second week was then looking changeable and after the usual difficult debate we eventually decided we’d pushed our luck weather-wise too far already. We scampered down for some Canmore/Lake Louise based valley action and the promise of beer and burgers. More of all that later though as this report has turned into a bit of an essay already!
To summarise, the Bugaboos are brilliant, amazing, superb and fantastic – but that just doesn’t seem to do them justice. Clearly, we were very lucky with the weather, as the storm that hit the day before we left showed with marble sized hailstones and a wind that came from nowhere, but the setting, the rock quality, the hut and friendly pack rats and ground squirrels all combine to make it a stunning venue. The routes are just a bonus…
Thanks to the rest of the guys for making it such an enjoyable trip and to those I begged, borrowed and stole from to save me spending any more money than I really had to!
All photos – Mark Westerman (thanks Mark!)
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